Businesses interested in online growth can’t ignore search as a marketing channel — it’s too important.
BrightEdge conducted a study that showed organic search directs the majority of traffic online. And links drive rankings in organic search. If search is important to your business — and it should be — links need to be a marketing KPI in 2016.
But not every link is created equal. If you’re using links as a KPI in your online marketing, you’ll need to be able to evaluate link quality. Pursuing real, worthwhile links is paramount to search success.
Penguin Update Coming (Hopefully) Soon
Google has indicated that the next Penguin update should happen sometime this year.
With Penguin approaching, it’s a good time to evaluate link quality, including what’s already in your current backlink profile.
Although it’s likely too late now to avoid a Penguin devaluation if you have a fair amount of toxic links, the sooner begun the sooner done. Google has confirmed that Penguin will become a real-time algorithm, meaning if you do the cleanup work now, a relatively quick recovery might be possible.
Spammy, toxic links are easy to identify for a variety of reasons. It’s pretty easy to look at a site and quickly determine if the links you’re getting are manipulative. For example, the linking site may be:
- Irrelevant to your site.
- Clearly lacking audience.
- Devoid of human value (i.e., solely designed for web crawlers).
- Linking to notoriously spammy niches (online gambling, pornography, pharmaceuticals, payday loans and so on).
- Missing central relevance (i.e., links point to sites in every vertical imaginable).
- Overtly selling links.
It’s relatively easy to spot these types of inbound links with a little manual investigation, and if you find them, you should promptly have them removed or disavowed.
However, toxic links can still pass link equity if they haven’t been devalued or discounted by Google, and you need to be careful when cleaning up your backlinks to avoid lost rankings. Furthermore, you should replace lost equity with fresh, real links.
There is a bit of a gray area when it comes to link quality, and the difference between mediocre links and problematic links is not always cut-and-dried. Because of this gray zone, any work to secure new links requires quality assurance.
Identifying real links and evaluating link quality will be increasingly important as links are given more value as a marketing KPI in 2016.
Evaluating Link Quality
Links are an indicator of success within online marketing. But this doesn’t mean “get as many links as possible” or “X number of links equals success.”
Links should be a KPI within your greater online marketing strategy, similar to the more generally accepted KPI (particularly for content) of social shares. Links are not the end goal, but instead a means to achieve the end goal.
In fact, links are more valuable in terms of traffic, with organic search driving 51 percent of traffic versus five percent from social (according to the BrightEdge study). And while quantity is often the goal with social shares, more isn’t necessarily better when it comes to links.
Rather, you need to evaluate the links you’re securing to guarantee quality and ensure they support your larger marketing goals. Evaluating link quality is much more difficult than spotting spammy links. Within link quality, there is a large gray zone beyond toxic versus non-toxic.
My fellow columnist Eric Ward asks a simple question to determine which links to pursue:
What would happen if all content was known to all people?
This question highlights the fact that if everyone knew all content, people would link freely to the content that interested them and their audience because they would know it exists.
But all people don’t know all content. You must promote your useful content to the appropriate audiences — these are the links you want.
Here are three overarching categories to consider when evaluating link quality:
- Human value
- Authority and trust
Each of these factors is complex and involves multiple layers of evaluation.
The most important factor when evaluating link quality is relevance.
Links without some degree of relevance aren’t worth your time (and are likely to be considered manipulative). A good litmus test is to explain the relevance to a colleague or friend. Why would a particular site link to you? If it is difficult to provide a compelling explanation, it’s probably time to move on to a new link prospect.
Generally speaking, a link can be relevant in four different ways:
- Domain to domain
- Domain to page
- Page to page
- Link to page
These are pretty straightforward, but you can check out a post by Cory Collins (a content marketing specialist and my colleague) here to learn more about each individual type of relevance.
Determining relevance comes down to trusting your intuition. If you can’t explain to another human being why a link would make sense on another site, the relevance likely isn’t there.
2. Human Value
Worthwhile links are those that offer real value to humans.
When thinking about the human value of a given link, consider if it would make sense on the page where it’s located. Ask yourself the following questions:
- Would someone be happy they clicked your link?
- Would the link take them where they expected to go?
- Would the page provide what they’re looking for?
- Would the link take them to something useful and helpful?
A link should contribute to the overall value for the site linking, the site being linked and the person who clicked the link. In fact, if a site owner is willing to link even though it offers no clear value to their audience, that’s a red flag, and you probably don’t want a link on that site.
You need to examine the linking site’s audience when considering human value. After all, if there aren’t any actual humans reading the site, there’s no human value in a link there. Same if the wrong audience is on the site – you want to be sure the link makes sense for everyone involved and adds value to the web.
It’s possible to check audience engagement through a site’s blog or forum by checking for comments and questions submitted by readers. Once you’ve verified engagement, you can use a tool like SEMrush to check traffic numbers and determine audience size.
Links that provide genuine value to human readers are the best links you can secure, and they’re the types of links Google wants to count.
3. Authority and Trust
Measurements of authority and trust are important criteria worth examining.
Google’s search algorithm is designed to return the most authoritative and trustworthy results for a given query. Google largely uses links to determine trust and authority, and you’ll want to ensure you’re securing links on sites that send these signals. Plainly stated, links from authoritative sites will pass more authority to your site.
Only Google engineers (and maybe not even them, at this point) understand how their search algorithm measures authority (PageRank) and determines search results. But there are some tools that offer relatively accurate authority metrics.
Here are some potential options:
- Moz – Domain Authority and Page Authority
- Majestic – Trust Flow and Citation Flow
- Check Google rankings for related terms – Ranking within Google is its own signal of authority (You can use a tool like AuthorityLabs).
These metrics shouldn’t be your only measuring stick, and context is required. For example, a new page on an industry-leading site will initially have low Page Authority simply due to being new.
Same with a new domain – an up-and-coming website generating positive engagement within an industry will still rate low on most if not all of these authority tests. But it’s worth looking at these tools to get a high-level interpretation of authority and trust.
Scrutinize the site’s link neighborhood, as well. Avoid any site that exists within a spammy link neighborhood. Use a backlink tool like Majestic or Open Site Explorer to examine a site’s backlinks.
Finally, conduct some niche research to get an idea of the site’s industry reputation. Do a quick Google search on the site’s brand or domain name and see what turns up. Or check relevant communities to see what the conversation surrounding prospective sites looks like. You can also use a mention tool to find brand mentions across the web.
A small amount of industry research can reveal a site’s reputation and help determine whether or not that site is somewhere you want a link.
Consider authority and trust signals as you evaluate link prospects, because links are endorsements online, and you should want to be in good company.
As SEOs, of course we will notice the technical elements surrounding a link. Google’s original PageRank patent describes much of this, and there have been updates since.
These technical elements are important to note, but they shouldn’t affect whether you pursue a link or not, only how you report it. These elements can affect how Google interprets relevance and authority, or if they can crawl the link at all.
Some of the technical elements to consider are:
- Alt attribute
- Anchor text
- Page location
Moz co-founder Rand Fishkin covers in depth most of the important factors in this Whiteboard Friday. These technical elements can and will affect the SEO value of a link.
You shouldn’t sweat these technical elements too much; the emphasis should remain on relevance, human value, authority and trust. It’s much more important to build positive relationships and earn trust from site owners, rather than raise issue with the technical elements of a link.
Evaluating link quality is an essential portion of successful link acquisition and monitoring search as a marketing channel.
As Google works to improve and adjust their algorithm, they are getting better at separating real links from link spam. If you want to earn worthwhile links that will make a positive impact for your site and brand, you must constantly evaluate link quality and ensure you’re securing the best links possible. In review, examine these criteria to determine link quality:
- Human value
- Authority and trust
Links represent endorsements online. If you’re actively marketing yourself online, you should be sure you’re receiving the endorsements you deserve — but it’s just as important to ensure they’re the reputable endorsements you want.